I was flipping through the pages of a magazine recently when a haunting image stopped my thumbs and held my attention. It was an advertisement for an art auction, with Andy Warhol’s 1981 painting of Uncle Sam heralded as the showcase item. If you’ve never seen the painting, it’s worth two seconds of your life via a Google image search. That is, the search itself will take two seconds, but you might find that the piece will hold your eyes for longer.
I’m not much of an art aficionado; I don’t know anything other than pop culture factoids about Warhol and his work. But when I saw the image of Uncle Sam, I realized immediately what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving. I’m thankful to be alive during a moment that, as I see it, marks a shift in our nation from the politics of cronyism and post-9/11 fear to the politics of reason, hope and resolve-even in the face of incredible obstacles at home and abroad.
Warhol’s image is a mug-shot style close-up on a traditional Uncle Sam’s face, but in place of the eyes seen on the recruiting poster, those of confident, justified ferocity. The viewer of this painting is seized by a weary, distrusting gaze, at once calculating and afraid, frown-lined and cynical. There’s nothing in his look that incites patriotism, or inspires service or action, as the old Uncle Sam succeeded in doing. Looking at the magazine, I simply wanted to stare back, unable to relate to this wholly other symbolic figure, forced to wonder what has driven our nation so far off course.
Many other young people have taken this same posture toward public policy in the past several years. Polls have shown that most look at the current state of our union and see an administration full of out-of-touch good ol’ boys; powerful white men who have succeeded in very little. Perhaps the largest failure being the lack of engagement with our generation, one that is less apathetic than unimpressed. This administration has asked an awful lot of our young men and women in uniform, as Veteran’s Day reminded us last week. The old image of Uncle Sam could back up the brazen slogan, “I Want You!” with a reciprocating promise. To reward the service of young people with public servants and politicians who are competent, talented, thoughtful and have their best interests in mind. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in saying that the Bush administration has not delivered anything close to this promise. The result has been the glaring image of a lackluster Warhol-esque Uncle Sam, ineffective and obsolete.
This Thanksgiving, as I bite into my mom’s gooey green bean casserole, I’ll be thankful to be at a table full of food and family. The current economic crisis certainly hurts the slogan streets; the Wall Street and Main Street we’ve heard about so much. But the harshest blows will fall on the very poor in the U.S. and abroad, on urban streets and the nameless dirt roads of malnourished villages. Wealth may not ever really trickle down according to plan, but strangely, a lack of wealth always does.
It remains to be seen whether President-elect Obama will be up to the task of addressing the myriad problems he’ll inherit. What has been clearly shown, however, is his ability to inspire a generation of millions of young people. I don’t agree with every single policy Obama stands for, but when I look at his image, I see the earlier Uncle Sam breaking through; a federal government interested in earning the right to challenge young people to use their talents for the betterment of this nation and our world, whether in the military, in community work, or in our everyday jobs and relationships.
If the new administration can demonstrate resolve, intellect, partisan reconciliation and work ethic, our generation will look at the images of our government and feel more free than ever to relate and respond.
Warhol’s painting was rendered in 1981, the year of my birth (yes, I’m an older-than-average Eagle). I’m thankful that, for the first time in my life, I live in a time where I don’t take a distrusting outsider’s posture toward American political life. I can look back at our government, be impressed and inspired, and say, “I want you, too.”